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All the Years of Us

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Year 5

Taehyung remembered the year Jungkook moved into town only by its blistering heat, worse than any others for two decades: In those days, they lost track of time often, and the weather was his only anchoring point. When his family first encountered the abandoned village that would become their home, Taehyung uncovered a calendar while poking around and had taken it to his mom out of curiosity. She burst into tears. He hadn’t dared ask again.

His birthday came in the middle of the Cold, but right before the Cold got especially bad, supposedly like everyone else. Taehyung understood why everyone got older when another year passed, but he swore his first glimpse of the world happened in brightness, with green everywhere, the air thick like soup.

“Is everyone born on the same day?” He asked once, but just like every question about the passage of time, it produced an emotional reaction—this time, a laugh—from his mother and went unanswered.

So with no decent way to track the passage of time, Taehyung found his own method: It was year 9 when he turned 9, year 10 when he turned 10—like the world hadn’t existed before him and couldn’t exist without him. Of course, by the time he realized how horribly untrue that was, it was too late to break the habit.

Either way; he met Jungkook in year 5, when his father had lost two fingers and his mom started letting her hair grow long, on an abnormally hot day in early spring.

As the sun began its journey over the horizon that morning, a hobbling triad made their way down the weathered street that led through the center of town. His father and the other heads of household went to meet them, armed with their farming equipment, prepared to drive them out or hear them out, depending on what they wanted.

Taehyung could see the strangers when they passed in front of his house: three figures; one with a polished, wicked knife that the morning sun glinted off like a promise, one with a black shrug that couldn’t hide the vibrant skirts swirling beneath it, and one with a backpack poking out, the child’s figure hidden between its parents.

Deemed too little to follow his father to meet them, on the chance that things might take an ugly turn, Taehyung instead snuck away from his mother, thinking the only possible danger could come from outside the town, from things non-thinking. Children were taught to say, as soon as they could speak, “do not go far, stay close, or we will never see you again,” and Taehyung knew the logic behind the words like he knew his own name. Some people surely cried at such harsh words, but the way his mother delivered them, her rough hands cupping his cheeks urgently, he understood without pain or confusion.

So when his father went to discuss the Jeons with everyone else, he followed, thinking he could flee if the meeting grew dangerous. He anticipated a plea for sanctuary, like with Sejun Kim, when he arrived half-frozen months prior. And while he would see the trial in theory, the moment he spotted the child huddled behind the woman, he only had eyes for Jeon Jungkook.

There weren’t many kids his age in their town, and most of them certainly weren’t five like him, so he held no prejudice when he saw that Jungkook was shorter and younger than him, the boy clutching onto his mother’s hand.

Empathy surged through him as he recalled the last and only family their town banished: Last winter, a man had been caught with grain that wasn’t his, claiming that he only wanted to feed his family. Taehyung still had nightmares of the weapons the people wielded. In the daylight, the long sharp sticks were used for harvesting, but in the dull light of the moon, they looked like instruments of misfortune.

He stared at Jungkook, thinking of the one scream he had heard that night, and he found himself going over to the family, his little body worming through the crowd, movements quick to avoid drawing unwanted attention.

Jungkook’s eyes found him before he got remotely close, and he saw the boy venture forward, rather than hide behind his mother. It brought a rush of happiness that Taehyung didn’t quite understand.

When Taehyung reached them, the mother glanced down, and he nearly retreated then: There were stray dogs that lurked around the garbage and sewage pit of their settlement, and the mother’s gaze looked just like theirs. Like she didn’t trust him inherently, and like him being there at all made him a problem. She had the haunted look that all the adults wore when the days grew shorter and they thought no one was looking.

He stopped, still hidden within the crowd, and watched the boy, wanting to go to him, yet afraid too afraid to approach the woman.

Jungkook glanced up at her and tugged at her hand, lips forming a full pout, but she shook her head sternly as she said something Taehyung couldn’t hear. The boy withdrew then, his large, sad eyes finding Taehyung with the knowledge of a lost battle.

Taehyung retreated then, feeling horribly disheartened, but when he went back to his mother she had a satisfied smile on her face, and he pestered her, asking “They’re staying, right?”

She ruffled his hair as he drew her attention. “It seems so. Your father is going to help him with repairs, in exchange for a share of their harvest.” A compromise Taehyung heard many a time during the early years. That was part of the reason they were one of the most well-off families in the group, not that Taehyung could connect those together at such a young age.

All that mattered to him was that the boy would stay and that he would be able to talk to him.

A few days passed, and when his mother cooked a loaf of sweet bread, with sugar and bits of dried fruit for them to eat for breakfast, he saw an opportunity. After Taehyung had eaten a piece, he decided he wanted to share it with the new family—that it was good enough even while missing some slices.

Picking up the entire tin, Taehyung scampered across his pockmarked porch right after his mother left to join his father in the field, warning him to do his house chores. Which he would do—after visiting the Jeons’ new house.

It was just across the road, but his heart thundered in his chest at the thought of getting caught. He forced himself to slow down as he picked his way up the rotted-out steps of the neighbors’ porch—it wouldn’t do to frighten them.

Mindful of courtesy, he knocked lightly on their door frame, calling out his name like he had been taught. “It’s Kim Taehyung! I’m from across the street.”

Time hung still for a moment, and then the scary woman from the day before opened the door, her expression morphing into one of guarded surprise at the sight of him.

“Jaehyuk’s boy?” She asked, only stepping aside when he nodded excitedly. “You’re the one from yesterday.”

He nodded, trying not to look too eager, though he knew he wasn’t very good at hiding things like that. “This is for you.” Taehyung proffered the tin like a shield, biting back his desperate need to ask about the boy, if he could finally meet him.

“Well then, come in.” Taehyung followed her into the house, eyes roaming over the dilapidated wooden floors, to the stairs that looked better off, and there he saw him; a small head peaking between beams of a bannister.

“My name is Taehyung!” He called up to him, not knowing what else to do as he trailed after the woman.

She guided him through an archway to their dining table, and gestured for him to set the food there, a cold wind blowing through the open hole where a window used to be.

“Did you already have a few pieces?”

Taehyung blushed. “Yes, I’m sorry.”

Seeming to accept this, she nodded to him. “Well, thank you, Taehyung. It smells delicious.”

He nodded, thinking it best to not mention how the rest of the room smelled, and asked, “Could I play with him, when he’s done with his chores?”

Finally a real smile stole across her features, and she said, “Well, we have a lot to do here, but you’re welcome to ask him.”

Triumphant in his success, he wheeled around, and then clumped up the stairs, hands grasping hard at the dusty bannister to catch himself if he should stumble.

The boy still stood in the same spot, upper teeth worrying his lower lip, frozen by Taehyung’s sudden attack.

“Hi!” Taehyung exclaimed when he reached the top of the stairs.

“Hi.” The boy stared at him, his large, dark eyes calm and curious.

“I’m Taehyung.”

“I know,” the boy sniffed.

“Who’re you?”

“I’m Jeon Jungkook.”

“Do you want to play later today, Jeon Jungkook?”

The boy blinked. “Play?”

Taehyung saw his opportunity. “Yeah! We can play soldiers with sticks, or we can race! I’m the fastest runner in town.” He boasted, obviously ignoring the grownups.

Jungkook smiled then, it spreading slowly over his face like he wasn’t quite used to the expression. “I’m fast.”

“So I’ll meet you after dinner, okay?”

“Dinner?” Jungkook looked confused.

“The evening meal?”

The boy looked down, and let out a small noise of agreement, after a pause.

Taehyung left, and then spent the remainder of the day whining about how slow time passed, his mind hung up on meeting his new friend that evening. Where everything felt against him, the moment he finished his dinner and ventured outside, the moods of the sky and ground shifted. The sun streaked over the browns left behind by winter, giving everything a new burst of life that reflected in the waiting Jungkook’s big eyes.

“I bet I can beat you.” Jungkook told him seriously; and when he lost, he only said, “I meant next time.”

That first year was full of ‘next times’ and Taehyung discovering Jungkook’s laughter like the flowers that only bloomed when you gave them enough sun. Jungkook was fast, but he wasn’t very good at stopping yet. Taehyung was constantly reminded to be gentle with him from his own parents, who knew what kind of horrible things could come of an injured child in this world—and somehow that bothered him more than Jungkook’s wary parents, who behaved like they didn’t trust him. They seemed to accept him at least in nature, but they never lost their hanging paranoia when he visited. Taehyung grew used to their abnormal stiffness with outsiders, it sliding off him like a well-designed roof in the rainy seasons, but he never understood their reasoning.

Jungkook’s parents held their son back from working at first, just like other parents did to their children that they considered too young to do anything physical, but as another two years passed, they still wouldn’t send him out even to fetch water. If he did anything, he followed and assisted Taehyung.

Taehyung had long-since graduated to actual outside chores, even though his only protection was a knife that clipped onto his pocket.

His dad joked to him occasionally that the authorities would have called them terrible parents “back in the day” if anyone saw him walking around with a knife, but nowadays it was the exact opposite. Revelations like this always made the man laugh, and Taehyung would laugh along with him even though he didn’t understand.

When he showed Jungkook his knife, the boy’s first reaction was awe, then suspicion, as he loudly told his friend that he would get in big trouble when his parents found their knife missing.

Taehyung preened a bit. “But they gave it to me!”

It probably didn’t help that he told Jungkook about it on his way to fetch one of his three pails of water that they would need for washing and cooking. Taehyung prided himself on his speed, but he couldn’t carry two buckets of water at once yet, and he knew Jungkook couldn’t manage even one, as he had tested the other a few weeks prior, only to watch with dismay when most of the water slopped over the sides from Jungkook’s unsteady arms.

Instinctively, he understood that without practice, Jungkook’s arms wouldn’t be strong enough, so he patted his friend’s face and arms when the boy started to cry with frustration.

After that time, Jungkook always accompanied him, and he tried occasionally to carry the bucket by himself, though he always gave it back to Taehyung when his arms started to waver. He never said so, but Taehyung could tell that being idle bothered him.

Jungkook’s parents told him to stay in the house while they worked, not even bringing him with them to the fields like other parents, so Jungkook visited Taehyung a lot during the day. Other adults whispered about his parents leaving him, like it was the times Before, but while they complained to each other, no one ever said anything to the parents.

People seemed to approve of Jungkook accompanying Taehyung, though. Adults had such convoluted motivations that it made Taehyung’s head hurt, but he would accept it, as it meant he could spend more time talking and planning with his best friend.

Like the day his parents gave him his knife in year 7; he knew if they put their heads together, they could think of something cool to do with it.

“Can I try?” Jungkook’s eyes shone with excitement.

“Yeah.” Taehyung came to a stop, letting his bucket settle before he offered, “You can pull it out.”

He held still while the younger boy took it out of the holster, both hands wrapped around the handle as he brought it up to eye level. Jungkook stared at it for a moment, rotating it to examine the serrated edge and then the sharp tip, before asking, “Could it cut me?”

“Definitely.” Taehyung grabbed his bucket and started to walk again, knowing Jungkook would catch up with him.

The sound of rushed footsteps came a few moments later, and Taehyung smiled to himself, pleased to be right.

“And you’re allowed to have this?” Jungkook scampered a bit ahead of him, eyes on the knife, though his attention drifted from it to Taehyung, to the point where the elder worried he might trip and cut himself.

“Yeah.” Taehyung glanced off into the distance as they made their way down the dusty path. “It’s for when I’m away from them. They want to make sure I can protect myself.”

Jungkook stared up at him, more awed by his words than the knife.

Something in the look made him feel like gloating, so as he hefted the bucket to his other hand, he asked, “Have you ever seen one of the zombies?”

He expected Jungkook to say no, frankly; they weren’t at the age where they felt the need to talk about their memories or previous experiences unless they were grossly impressive or horrifying—and then it would be embellished to make them seem cooler.

Despite all the proper expectation, Jungkook quieted at the question, his hand with the knife dropping to his side, eyes wide and frightened as they went to skim the shadows of the road, silence growing between them.

Taehyung recognized the terse quiet that sometimes overtook his parents when they made trips out of town, and in that moment recognized subconsciously that something had happened to Jungkook, something he hadn’t been even slightly able to anticipate with Jungkook’s attitude.

“Yes,” Jungkook finally answered, hand clenching around the knife.

“Did your parents kill it?”

The silence pressed over them again, though this time Taehyung could hear the hoarse way his friend was breathing, like someone had plugged his nose, and the panic made breathing through his mouth a million times worse.

“Did they kill it?” He repeated louder, tensing a bit when something small ruffled the bushes on the side of the path.

Jungkook had frozen as well, and they both inadvertently listened for the wet gurgling sound that meant one of them was close by. When nothing came, they knew that didn’t mean anything—when zombies didn’t know humans were close, they often didn’t make noises at all.

After a moment, they both resumed walking, though Jungkook trailed in front of him now, steps faster as a chill seemed to have overtaken their sunny afternoon.

“No.”

Taehyung blinked in surprise, having started to give up that his friend would answer him. “They didn’t? Did they run?”

Jungkook nodded. “It was a lady in our group. Before. She was really pregnant, and she screamed so much.”

“So what happened?”

“We…” Jungkook stopped and Taehyung nearly ran into him. “We left when the zombies started coming.”

“What?” Taehyung strode past him, whipping around so Jungkook couldn’t hide from him. “Some lady was having a baby, and you left?”

Jungkook’s lower lip wobbled, like he was trying not to cry.

Anger that he didn’t understand surged through him and he shook his head accusingly. “They’re dead. Probably zombies. Probably the baby, too.”

Jungkook shoved him, and some water slopped out of the pail. “Shut up! You shut up!”

Taehyung wanted to demand to know why they didn’t even try to help the lady, but Jungkook had started bawling, his tiny face scrunched up with anguish, and Taehyung suddenly remembered how young his companion was, how his parents wouldn’t have listened to him even if he had insisted on helping the lady.

Gently setting his bucket down, he moved forward to hug the other, but Jungkook ducked out of his arms with a mutinous glare. “Don’t.”

“Okay…”

After a moment of hoarse breathing, Jungkook trying to get his tears under control, Taehyung scooped up his bucket again, forcing away thoughts of an additional fourth trip to the well that day, and started along the road again.

Wordlessly, Jungkook followed.

--

Taehyung started to worry when he didn’t see Jungkook in the next days; the first day he could understand, and when he told his parents about the incident, they just shook their heads. They tried hard not to react in front of him, because as much as they trusted him to do things by himself, they still didn’t want him working too hard or experiencing things he wouldn’t be able to handle. However, Taehyung knew his father seemed stiffer than usual when he would come back from working in the fields, and the looks he would get from Jungkook’s parents in passing grew more hostile.

When enough time passed that he began to sorely miss his friend, he decided he would sneak over after dark, ignoring his parents’ ever-present warning to not leave the house once the sun set. He knew the world sank into a plane of unfamiliarity when the sun disappeared—just like he knew that zombies weren’t the only thing that would love to take a bite out of a lost human.

Thankfully, Jungkook lived close, so after his parents went to bed, he snuck down the stairs of the house, stepping on the edges where they wouldn’t creak as loudly, and slipped out of the door. He hadn’t yet shot up in height like his father kept promising he would, so he hid easily behind the rail of their porch as he checked the road for stragglers. It only took a rather rudimentary check, as the others also feared being out after dark, and then he slipped carefully down the outdoor steps, then across the road.

He anticipated their front door being locked, so he snuck around to the back of the house, feeling so proud that he remembered where Jungkook’s room was on the second floor. Some of the more paranoid neighbors put traps in their yards, so he slunk around the side of the house with caution. But, as most of the shrubbery had been shorn away so nothing could sneak up on the inhabitants, he would wager there were no traps in the yard. Of course, theoretically speaking, the Jeons weren’t worried about a five-year-old boy, so he managed just fine, heading around the left side of the house, before scooping a few pebbles up off the ground.

Taking a steadying breath, he lobbed the first up at Jungkook’s window, letting it click off, his heart thundering like crazy as he waited to see if anyone would come inspect the sound. If Jungkook had gone to bed early, the whole effort would be pointless, but Taehyung had to stay confident, wanting to see his friend too badly to let himself think about the possibility of failure.

After a minute of nothing, he sent up another small stone, then a third and fourth in succession, staying out in the open for a moment in case Jungkook came to check. His friend wouldn’t venture outside for any old adventure, risking the wrath of his parents for something that could kill him much faster than his angry parents.

Though it felt like much longer, Taehyung lingered for the better part of an hour, throwing stones until he heard telltale creaking from inside the living room.

Panicking, he pinned himself against the ground next to the foundation right as the front door opened, feet that sounded far too large to be Jungkook’s stepping out on the porch.

“I told you we should set some traps up,” Jungkook’s father called softly back into the house. The reply was inaudible, but he heard the man groan as he headed back inside.

Disappointment burned bitterly in Taehyung’s stomach, but he reluctantly crept back into his own house, slipping up the stairs in the dark, fighting not to sprint back to bed, seeing monsters where the furniture settled into the shadows. Fear couldn’t touch him in the day time, but something about being the only thing visible to invisible things scared him beyond all rational thought. He badly wished he could have seen Jungkook.

The next day, he spent his first trip to the well hatching another plan to grab Jungkook’s attention: He considered everything from throwing heavier stones at his window to hiding a note on the porch for him, though he would have no idea how to keep Jungkook’s parents from finding it.

On his second trip, he started considering climbing up to Jungkook’s room using rope, and he was focused so intently on how he would attach it to the roof with his superior throwing skills, that he didn’t hear footsteps from behind him.

Eventually they grew loud enough to break through his reverie, and his eyes widened with panic, Taehyung setting the pail down gracelessly as he grabbed for his knife and crouched to make himself look smaller, as he prepared to fight.

Then Jungkook barreled around the corner, breathing hard, as he had obviously run a greater part of the way. Taehyung nearly tackled him, first because it took him a moment to recognize his friend, and second because Jungkook almost knocked over the bucket in his struggle to stop.

“Tae!”

Taehyung clumsily tucked his knife back away, almost cutting himself in the process, as he didn’t look down to check where he was putting it, too excited by his friend’s return.

“Where have you been?” He fought to keep from pouting.

Jungkook stared at him, looking like he hadn’t expected to find his friend. “Well… I got in trouble for telling you about before.”

“So you weren’t allowed to leave the house?”

Jungkook nodded, clearly relieved that Taehyung wouldn’t ask him to talk about it more. “And…”

“It’s been so boring without you! I tried to get your attention last night, but you sleep too heavy!”

“Tae—”

“Your parents nearly caught me though! Ugh, and then I would have gotten into trouble, too.”

“Tae!” Jungkook stomped his foot and the elder fell silent. “I was trying to tell you, but you were the one making noise last night? Dad thought it was bad people, he said he’s going to set traps out! You could get hurt!”

“But you’re here now.” Taehyung grinned boldly. “So it worked, and I don’t have to do it again.”

He expected Jungkook to share his joy, but the boy looked down, like he expected to be scolded.

“I’m not supposed to be seeing you,” Jungkook mumbled.

“What?”

“It’s…my mom said you’re trouble.”

Anger flared through Taehyung. “I haven’t done anything!”

“No, but, her cards keep saying you are. So she yells at me when she sees I’m with you.”

Taehyung swallowed thickly. “So are we…not going to play together anymore?”

Finally, Jungkook met his gaze. “Of course we are…but what am I supposed to do?”

“Run away!” Taehyung scooped up his bucket, needing to move, feeling frustrated and conflicted. He had just gotten his best friend back, and his mother wanted to separate them? It was so wrong! “Come live with me. Stupid cards. What do they even know? Some of them are jokers, how could she listen to that?”

Jungkook trotted to keep up with him, frowning a bit. “Jokers?”

“Yeah, and there’s kings and queens and numbers.” Taehyung was proud to admit he knew all the numbers. “Half are red and half are black.”

“Um, mom’s cards aren’t like that? They have swords and stuff—”

“And swords can tell you that I’m a bad guy? I’m not! You know I’m not!” Desperation started to fill his words. “And who would you play with then?”

Jungkook sped up a bit so he could watch Taehyung as they walked, nearly tripping on the uneven dirt. “Don’t you mean who would you play with?”

Taehyung shot him an unimpressed look. “Who would we play with? Alright?”

“Yeah,” Jungkook sounded satisfied. “The cards are usually right, but I know they’re wrong, anyway.”

“I told you! I’m not a bad person!”

“I know, Tae.” Jungkook fell in beside him again. “I told her so.”

--

Thankfully, as his parents left Jungkook unattended for the majority of the day anyway, that left them able to hang out like they had before, though Taehyung seemed to grow a sixth sense for the mistrustful looks the couple would cast him. He told his parents that he swore they had something against him, but unless they wanted a private confrontation that would out whay Jungkook had confided in him, their hands were tied. Baseless accusations from a child would only sow bad blood, and as much as Taehyung hated hearing that his opinions mattered less because of his age, he could see the logic beyond his own hurt.

Complaining to Jungkook seemed to only hurt his feelings, as the boy disliked being reminded that the two most important aspects of his life resented each other. The fact that they had to take him aside about Taehyung meant something to the boy, as their concerns in the past had true basis, and if he hadn’t already grown so fond of Taehyung, he probably would have avoided him like they wanted.

Taehyung understood; he didn’t exactly live in a softer home than Jungkook, but sometimes after dinner, his mother would pull him onto her lap for a few minutes. She told him she was checking to see if he grew, but they would just sit there, mostly, her arms tight around him like she could keep him caged off from the rest of the world. The meaning didn’t quite click for him then, but he liked those moments, and he could easily drift off to sleep with her strength surrounding him, promising safety. In those moments, he knew he would follow whatever they asked of him.

Both of his parent seemed so unstoppable, so strong—like they had overcome every single obstacle they had faced—and Taehyung fed off that, standing tall as he walked around the camp, confidence in the set of his small shoulders.

Jungkook’s parents, conversely, never lost the haunted air that they had when Taehyung first saw them. Rather than appearing insurmountable, they had the air of statues that never expected stone to grow over them. Houses with the lights on, but every window latched. Like something had broken them long ago, yet they kept moving. Like they were zombies, just not yet deceased. And just like Taehyung mimicked his parents, Jungkook spooked easily. The first time he ran into the other by accident, it had nearly made the younger boy cry. Half the time he assumed it came from the boy’s younger age, but he began to worry there was some inherent weakness in him, sowed by his parents.

Taehyung began to goad him when they would spend time together, driven by his resentment over how Jungkook never bothered to stand up for him to his parents. What they thought was stupid, impossible—Taehyung would never do anything to hurt anyone. They were the ones who left a pregnant woman to the zombies.

His resentment began with him asking Jungkook to carry his water bucket one day, only to out-pace him on the path, talking like he didn’t notice the boy falling behind.

“Taehyung!” Jungkook practically screamed, and he almost turned around, tensing as he heard birds take off. If there was anything malevolent within a few miles, they would have heard that.

He wrestled with turning back for the next minute, but when the heavy sound of panting filled the air, feet slapping the ground, Taehyung wheeled around, expecting to see that his plan had worked, that Jungkook miraculously conjured enough strength to catch up with him.

Well, he was half correct; in his panic, Jungkook had left the pail behind to catch up with his friend.

Irritation buzzed in his ears, and he nearly yelled at the younger boy, but Jungkook looked so glad to see him, hands going to grab Taehyung’s shirt when he caught him.

“You kept going,” Jungkook whispered. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Taehyung swatted him off, and the boy recoiled like he yelled at him.

“You keep walking,” he snapped, already feeling guilty. “You don’t leave the water! Then you have to walk extra!”

Jungkook’s lower lip started to quiver, but he turned back the way they had come to go grab the bucket. Part of Taehyung wanted to let the silence linger, but his own weakness drove his big mouth to add more.

“I don’t know how you manage anything! You’re small, you don’t do anything important; you just follow me.”

Taehyung waited for him in the road, trying to fight back the emotions that wanted to overwhelm him after he had spoken. He was right, but that didn’t mean Jungkook could handle it.

When the boy came around the corner, arms straining to hold the bucket, Taehyung watched as he picked his way, wobbling with each step, panting like breathing came second to making progress. Jungkook set the bucket down more than once, needing to rest his arms, and it took them over an hour to reach Taehyung’s house, where he carried the water up the stairs to dump into their bucket for boiling.

At that point, Taehyung was so bored that he finally said, “Here, at least you managed it on your own. I’ll take it back and you can practice on your own.”

Jungkook looked at him then, resentment plain in his eyes, and he spoke shortly, “No. I’m gonna get the rest.”

“Jungkook…”

“No!” The boy snapped, “I can do it on my own!”

“But it’s my bucket!”

“Too bad!” Jungkook charged outside, and stumbled over the threshold, Taehyung hot on his heels, determined to steal the bucket back.

Taehyung’s hand closed around the handle, and that yanked Jungkook back when his toe caught one of the uneven boards of his porch. Free arm swinging a bit, Jungkook fell back against Taehyung, staring wide eyed at the stairs he almost tripped down.

Anger momentarily forgotten, he clung to Taehyung’s shirt with one hand, and Taehyung’s own resentment softened as he looked at the other. As much as he hated that Jungkook got away with less work, he knew that wasn’t his fault: His parents were the ones who kept him from working. Jungkook proved over and over that he would work if allowed the chance, even if Taehyung was the only one profiting.

He recognized that his actions had been hurtful, but he couldn’t imagine doing anything severe enough to push Jungkook away from him. As he had never experienced a true tragedy, consequences seemed light and reprimanding—nothing that could take his best friend away from him.

Ms. Lee’s descent into wasted sickness had been the only death he witnessed at that point, so Jungkook’s memory of the mother giving birth being left to the zombies sowed only abstract uneasiness in him. The struggles that drove Jungkook’s parents’ actions were rooted in agonies like that, and for better or worse, those things made no sense to Taehyung.

And yet, in the moment on the stairs, he could see Jungkook, pale as a sheet from his almost accident, and that preventative fear touched Taehyung for just a moment.

“Here, go get a bucket from your house,” he murmured to the younger. “We can do it together.”

Jungkook peered up at him and nodded slowly, releasing his shirt with a reluctance that Taehyung would never admit that he felt, too.

--

His test, which had originally been the first of many, ended up being the only time he did something straightforwardly cruel to his friend—though his desire to see the other boy work didn’t disappear. If anything, it morphed, and Taehyung started showing him how to do a wide variety of household chores.

Not only did they fetch water and take firewood in, but he taught him moves with his knife, and their races grew longer, with more of a focus on achievement. When Jungkook finally beat him, even though it came from Taehyung forgetting where they had set the finish line, the boy’s face glowed with so much accomplishment that Taehyung could only argue the most arbitrary amount. Technicalities would be the only thing Jungkook could win on for a few more years, unless he suddenly grew taller than Taehyung.

Of course, Jungkook couldn’t do too much because Taehyung was still considered too little for anything with tools and Jungkook wasn’t allowed to do chores for his own house.

They both found it stupid, like how the townspeople considered them too little to go to their meetings, but when the majority thought you were useless, they couldn’t even get enough attention to argue their points.

They searched for more chores to do to combat those ideas, immediately crossing off cooking, as they didn’t know how, and wasting food was considered one of the cardinal sins.

Jungkook suggested helping with the washing of dirty clothes, but the handmade soap burned their hands so badly that it got the younger boy spanked when he went home and had to explain to explain the marks to his parents.

They eventually gave up on doing extra chores and instead spent their time spying on the adults.

One of their favorite people to watch was a “stupid kid” (from Taehyung’s parents) named Daehyun—stupid because he went looking for scrap far from town as soon as he finished in his fields, wandering to look for items that could potentially be of use.

Taehyung and Jungkook hadn’t been able to hear too many details of that, up until that point, as both of their parents dismissed venturing too far from safety. Different towns meant strangeness, the potential for hidden threats that they might not have the ability to deal with. Neither of them could even imagine a different town, just picturing more dilapidated houses like on the far side of their own town, and both were so thoroughly spooked away from those houses that they didn’t even bother guessing between them about the place.

Supposedly his ventures stemmed from the promises that the adults in their community had already picked the nearby houses clean. And though Taehyung and Jungkook knew the dangers of leaving town, like any kid, when they overheard the guy talking about the things he had found the last time he went to the new town, they were hooked before they even knew what was happening.

They spied on him a lot, listening carefully as he talked about the houses that his group had already visited.

“We marked the houses with three stones right inside the doorway. They’re clear of zombies and stuff. It’s a good system, stragglers wouldn’t know that’s a sign from other people.”

Jungkook wrinkled his nose as the man went on and on about his clever ideas, and Taehyung couldn’t blame him; he hadn’t seen an adult talk so highly of themselves ever. It felt rather disconcerting, and many parts annoying.

Eventually, when he could tell that Jungkook would either make a run for it, Taehyung be damned, or fall asleep, one of the girls asked where the town was located.

“Why?” He teased her, “You want to finish looting it?”

She smacked his arm lightly and shook her head. “I’m just curious. I know the guys cleaned out most the area to the south, but I thought they wanted to send one last party down there to double check.”

“Well, they’ve gone beyond that, too.” Taehyung perked up as he sensed his desired information was finally going to come out. “They had to scope out other nearby towns to make sure there weren’t any zombies that could wander over. We went north, figured the craters would make it easy to find our way back.”

Taehyung’s eyes glittered triumphantly; he might not know exactly what a ‘crater’ was, but the way the guy talked about them, it sounded like they would be easy to see.

“Let’s go back,” he murmured to Jungkook, who groaned and stood up, legs cracking.

“Finally.” Jungkook grumbled, “grown-ups talk so much.”

Fighting the urge to remind Jungkook who talked more out of the two of them, he merely scoffed to himself, then guided him away from the group, picking up his pace when they were a street over.

“Race you to the fields!” He called, before immediately kicking into a run.

Jungkook might not have been ready, but he started after him willingly, never dropping too far behind as they rounded corners. He even passed him up as Taehyung nearly ran into one of the ladies that lived on their street.

He called an apology to Ms. Lee in one breath before yelling at Jungkook that he still wouldn’t win.

That time, he did, but Jungkook didn’t have long to boast before he had to fall silent, on the off chance that his parents might hear him. For some reason, they scolded him quite soundly every time he came too close to the fields, even though they had to be the safest place for anyone in the early summer, when all the adults were out working in them.

Taehyung looked at Jungkook with an eager wink. “I’ll be back,” he promised, before he darted into the rows of plants, seeking out his parents.

When he reached them, he attached himself to his mother’s leg, calling up at her, “What’s a crater?”

She looked down at him with faint amusement, though he could see the exhaustion already lining her brow from the weeding she had been doing since early morning.

“A crater is a big hole in the ground. Why?”

She knelt so they could see eye to eye. Taehyung never knew if he liked it or not, because it felt like she wanted to hear what he had to say, but it also felt a million times harder to lie to her with her face right there.

“I heard Daehyun say it,” he decided to just tell her the truth. “I was wondering.”

“So you came all of the way out here to ask me?” Her eyes sparked with suspicion.

“No!” Taehyung pouted. “We’re bored, so we raced.”

“Did you get the water for the day?”

“Yes!”

She hummed and then stood back up, ruffling his hair. “So I take it you’re not hanging around for lunch?”

The adults took nonperishable things to the fields with them, and often ate as they worked, when they got hungry.

Taehyung shook his head. “We already ate.”

“Then go play, alright? We’ll be home at the usual time.” She offered her son a smile to soften the dismissal, but Taehyung didn’t care about that; she had given him exactly what he needed.

He ran back to Jungkook then, though he had to go as far back as the tree line to find him, as the younger boy’s paranoia and boredom drove him further away from the fields. Taehyung discovered him beneath a tree, poking at a bug with a stick, completely absorbed in what he was doing.

Taehyung smirked to himself and crept up behind him, growling “Jungkook” as he grabbed the boy’s neck.

Shrieking, Jungkook shot up and flailed backwards, the stick whipping around to slap the elder boy across the face.

“Ow!” He cried, stumbling back as well, clutching at his face.

“You jerk! You big jerk!” Jungkook gasped out, looking close to tears, “Don’t do that!”

“You hit me!”

When Jungkook calmed down a bit, he stepped forward, demanding, “Move your hands.”

“No!”

“Tae, let me see,” he huffed.

Reluctantly, he let his hands drop, and Jungkook smiled a bit.

“What? Is there a mark?”

“Yup,” the boy sounded proud. “Serves you right.”

Taehyung bit back the urge to hit Jungkook back, not wanting to deal with the younger boy crying. “Well, then I guess I can go to the craters by myself.”

Jungkook’s eyes widened. “Your mom knew what they were?”

“Maybe,” he replied loftily, stepping around his friend, heading for the packed path back toward their houses.

“No fair, you have to tell me!” Jungkook tripped over a tree root on his way back to the path, barely managing to catch himself.

Vindicated enough by that, Taehyung exposed, “They’re big holes. So the road Daehyun meant was the one behind your house.”

Jungkook nodded, excitement sparking in his eyes. “Are we gonna go today?”

Taehyung thought about it; they had lunch right before they had gone looking for Daehyun, and dinner wouldn’t be for a few more hours. Jungkook could potentially get scolded for not being at home when his parents would return, but they had gotten so used to him being out with Taehyung that even that lacked enthusiasm, or so the boy said.

“Might as well.” Neither of them would be able to sleep well that night if they saved it for the next day, and if their parents caught on, it wasn’t guaranteed that either could lie well enough to throw their parents off.

They started walking back to their houses, Jungkook proudly reminding him that he had a knapsack they could load up with supplies.

“What supplies do we have, Kook?”

“You know…! Like water and food! Or bandages!”

Taehyung watched with amusement as Jungkook gestured grandly as they walked, the gestures nearly tripping Jungkook several times.

“So you carried it when you were travelling?”

“Yes! I carried the bandages and clothes!”

Honestly kind of impressed, Taehyung reminded himself that they would get to have their own adventures from there on out; it wouldn’t matter that he hadn’t lived nomadically like Jungkook.

Arriving at the house, they both clomped up to the door, feeling time pressing down on them: They would only have a few hours before their parents would start looking for them, and they didn’t even know how far the town was from theirs.

“I’ll get the bag!” Jungkook rushed up the stairs, hurdling up them with a strength that made Taehyung both proud of him and worried that he would miss a step and come tumbling down in his rush. “What should we take?”

Taehyung thought about the very real possibility of them getting their butts kicked if they took anything too important. “Just the bag! We can fill it with stuff when we get to town.”

Jungkook appeared at the top of the stairs with a hammer clasped in both of his hands. “Should we take this?”

He swayed as he held the tool, it dropping lower and lower the longer Jungkook tried to hold it up, and Taehyung decided. “We have my knife. If we need to break into anywhere, we can come back with it another day.”

“It’s not for that,” Jungkook protested. “It’s for the zombies.”

A chill went down Taehyung’s spine, though he shook his head; he had seen zombies before, in situations controlled by his parents, so he knew the signs that one was close by, but he had never seen one outside of that. They practically felt like an urban legend. Either way, he had been taught very specifically not to approach a zombie under any circumstances; running and getting help had been ingrained in him as the only appropriate response. However, with his friend’s showy actions, bravery bright in his eyes, he could see them fighting a whole group and winning.

“Still,” he finally replied. “We have my knife. If we take too much, we won’t be able to bring as much back.”

Jungkook nodded nonchalantly and took the hammer back to where he had grabbed it, not having seen the struggle Taehyung had just gone through. They headed out after that, slipping between the houses, avoiding the traps Jungkook’s father had laid out after the night Taehyung had snuck around outside.

Taehyung looked at the familiar line of houses, nerves boiling happily in his stomach. He was more than ready for his first real adventure.

Glancing over at his friend, he saw a similar sentiment in Jungkook’s sunny smile, it only waning when his bangs fell into his eyes, the boy brushing them away with the most routine expression of annoyance.

“Why doesn’t your mom cut your hair?” Taehyung asked, the thought coming to him out of nowhere. Both of Jungkook’s parents wore their hair short, and seemed the type to worry about the grabbing hazard of long hair.

“I like it long.” Jungkook shrugged. “Mom takes my side when dad tries to cut it too short.”

The idea of Mrs. Jeon standing up for one of her son’s preferences struck Taehyung as strange, but he learned months ago that criticizing Jungkook’s parents only led to lonely days when Jungkook would refuse to talk to him.

Taehyung had never grown his hair long; while his mother’s hair reached her shoulders, both of his parents insisted that he keep his hair cropped short like his father’s, as protection “just in case.” He really, really hated that phrase.

Not wanting to admit that Jungkook’s family had something he didn’t, Taehyung changed the subject as the houses grew more broken down and spaced out, a road appearing in the distance through the long weeds.

“Here we go,” Taehyung whispered to himself, as they brushed through the bushes, ignoring the insects that buzzed hungrily around them like they always did.

Their parents insisted on them wearing long sleeves and pants even in the summer, for safety reasons in addition to keeping the bugs off them, but in both of their cases, they had so many little holes in their clothes that they gotten bitten up and tanned despite their long sleeves.

Jungkook needed new clothes altogether; most of his pants had holes in the knees from his frequent tripping. Maybe they could find clothes for him in their trip.

No one had ever said it outright to him, but as the Jeons were new to the community, they had very few personal possessions, and thus had little to bargain with. The term ‘poor’ had never been introduced to him, but Taehyung instinctively knew whatever they found would be more of use to his friend, though that wouldn’t keep Jungkook from offering to share.

Caught in his thoughts of grandeur and new jeans, Taehyung didn’t see the hole until he almost fell into it.

All he knew was that he stepped through the large fronds of a bush, and there wasn’t ground where there should have been. He yelped, flailing as he fought to remain upright, hands grabbing for Jungkook to yank him back. With their combined weights, they crashed back onto their butts.

“What was that for?” Jungkook gasped.

“There’s…” Taehyung reached out and brushed the bushes aside, showing a gaping, jagged hole in the pavement that went down into a pool of putrid water, bugs skimming over the surface.

“Crater?” Jungkook tripped over the unfamiliar word, his eyes as round as saucers.

Taehyung rose shakily to his feet; glad he had reacted the right way to that. “Let’s go one house over.”

He started back the way they came and they loped around the badly scavenged house, Jungkook musing, “I wonder what caused those holes… You don’t think the zombies did it?”

Taehyung tried to think up an answer, but his own thoughts swirled with alarm, half of his attention back in the hole, where he would have fallen in and possibly…sank to the bottom of the water.

“What do you think made them?”

“I dunno, Kook,” he sighed. “Maybe we can ask Daehyun when we get back.”

Placated, Jungkook recovered from their scare quickly enough, the boy scampering ahead, peering into the large hole that they had skirted around.

“Think there are monsters down there?” He asked after a moment.

Taehyung shook his head. “Not this close to home. Mom and dad would have killed anything that was down there.” His conviction was genuine, not concerned that the bubble of safety that their town created couldn’t stretch forever.

It was a beautiful day, though; the kind where even justifiable worries couldn’t take root in children. They lacked the caution, the cynicism that would have adults questioning the warmth—as it wasn’t hot enough to smell the dead, but it was sunny enough to burn a person.

Jungkook and Taehyung couldn’t care less about the weather, when they had the broken road stretching to the horizon, the wilderness creeping in more and more as they travelled. Flowers and bushes grew in the cracks of the broken concrete, and behind what used to be some sort of fence, the forest encroached, clinging so hardily to the human-made stuff that it was a wonder humans had ever managed to carve positions out for themselves at all.

Taehyung walked down the center of the road, soaking in the sights; the absolute cacophony of birds, proud and unafraid in their own territory; and the small furry animals darting in and out of sight too quickly for the boy to figure out what he saw.

Meanwhile, Jungkook walked on the raised bit of platform next to the road, so he could better examine the true wilderness.

“It’s mixing so much,” he sounded awed. “We used to live in this, but I think I forgot what it was like.”

Taehyung shot him a look. “How could you forget already? You’ve only been here for like, half a season.”

Jungkook didn’t reply and he worried that he had upset him, before the boy replied, “It was scary, all of the time. Even when it was sunny, mom and dad were always hiding or hunting or—doing something like that. I couldn’t do anything.”

Suddenly finding it hard to look at his friend, Taehyung kicked a small stone viciously, it skittering along the road, before running into a hollow metal shell that looked like something he should know the name of, but didn’t.

“But I’m not scared here.” Taehyung’s head rose at the emotion in the boy’s voice.

“Because you have me?” Taehyung couldn’t keep himself from taunting the younger boy, even though they both already knew his words were true.

Jungkook flushed. “Shut up.”

He laughed and moved to shift around another big hole, stepping closer to Jungkook, feeling oddly at peace, like they didn’t have to find anything for the journey to have been worth it.

Of course, after another half an hour of walking, he had begun to feel differently: They had to head back before dinner, and neither of them had much in the way of a good internal clock.

“We’re just going to have to come back earlier tomorrow,” Taehyung sighed, glancing at Jungkook.

The boy looked disappointed, but he had also grown more and more antsy as the sun ascended across the sky. Neither of them wanted to be too far from town when the sun started to set for real, but they wished they had discovered something after walking for so long.

“Can’t we go just a little further?” Jungkook begged, “Just a little?”

Taehyung thought about it and sighed, reluctant to head back emptyhanded. “Over the hill, maybe. But we have to go back after that.”

Neither of them expected to find anything at the top of the little hill, but as they walked, enormous buildings came into view in the far distance. Taehyung was struck, as he had never seen anything remotely like them before, and something about them felt wrong as he looked at them. Houses weren’t supposed to be that big, and he could tell from how far away they were that they were huge.

He turned to see his friend’s reaction, only to find that Jungkook was in a worse state; his face had drained of all color and he had taken a step backwards.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s…we were there. Before we were here.” Jungkook swallowed thickly. “That’s a city. We really shouldn’t be here, Tae. Bad stuff happens in cities.”

The trees along the road rippled in the wind, sending chills down Taehyung’s arms that felt too ominous to ignore.

“Then let’s go back,” he said, with an air of finality. “We can go another way tomorrow.”

Jungkook nodded, and they both turned around, wordlessly walking faster, like something was at their heels that neither could see.

However, unlike running back in town, where Taehyung knew every landmark and house, the stretch of road felt never-ending as they walked, then slowly picked up into a run, both boys feeling spooked at the reminder that they were alone in a fallen world.

They ran along the road, and as much as Taehyung wanted to sprint, he couldn’t leave Jungkook behind. Afraid or not, he couldn’t even think about running anywhere besides alongside him, so he purposefully went a little slower, and his mind helpfully began to conjure villains in the shadows that had begun slant across their path.

After running for a good bit of time, disheartened over the lack of familiarity, Jungkook had begun to slow down, his breaths turning into wheezes. Taehyung started to worry that they wouldn’t be back before sunset, but when he saw Jungkook began to sway on his feet, he knew they had to stop. They didn’t have any water out there, and if Jungkook fainted, Taehyung would have to carry him, which would take even longer.

He gestured for Jungkook, to get his attention, and then he slowed to a walk. “Let’s take a break. Just for a minute.”

The boy couldn’t even argue; he bobbed his head, expression heavy as he stared down at the cracked asphalt, clearly thinking of the scolding his mother would give him.

Taehyung moved to sit on the edge of the pavement and wrapped his arm around the boy when Jungkook sank down next to him. They never hugged much, but he wanted to let him know somehow that he was sorry, that he was also afraid, and that he didn’t want his friend to get in trouble.

Jungkook smiled sadly up at him, lips parting to say something, before he hunched over, coughing.

Worry bit at Taehyung, and he asked, “Are you okay?”

The wind had started to blow again, and Jungkook coughed louder. “Yeah—bug—swallowed a bug.”

Taehyung laughed a bit, relieved, and went to ask his friend what he had started to say before, when something flickered in the back of his mind. Something didn’t feel right.

Closing his mouth, he frowned as he looked around and listened. Nothing seemed out of place; the trees and bushes were still across the way.

Another sigh of wind, and then it hit Taehyung that if the wind was blowing, the foliage should be moving.

He focused on the sound of the wind, listening to it rasp and gurgle in a way that sounded far more like a sick person than air blowing through leaves.

He had heard that sound only twice before, and Taehyung found himself stiffening as the knowledge crashed over him.

“Jungkook,” he whispered. “We need to go, now.”

The boy looked at him questioningly, but Taehyung was on his feet, snapping, “Don’t talk. Or talk, but we need to move.”

He grabbed Jungkook’s hand like his own parents always did to him, like Jungkook’s parents did for him, because he couldn’t risk Jungkook trying to pick a fight and wasting time.

Jungkook squeezed his hand, and Taehyung felt taken aback by how soft the boy’s hand was, even after all the weeks of helping carry the water pails. He was little; so small, so fragile, and the remaining dregs of Taehyung’s resentment toward Jungkook’s inability to work as hard as him drained away. No matter how ill-prepared, today he was ready to be the protector, the leader. When Jungkook looked at him, expression level, he knew he couldn't succumb to his panic.

“We have to run,” he whispered, the gurgling getting louder. “No matter what happens, you have to keep running. Got it?”

Fear flickered over the boy’s expression, but he nodded, puffing his chest up.

“And if…something happens to me, you still have to keep running. You have to get back to town.” Taehyung was only repeating the words his own father had drilled into him over time, but that day, he felt them. “You go and get help and tell them. Okay, Kook?”

It was clear Jungkook finally heard the gurgling himself, his face locked into an expression of insurmountable panic.

“Jungkook,” he snapped, dragging the boy forward. “You have to do it. Please.”

Something about the plea reached him, and he met Taehyung’s gaze, nodding slowly. Taehyung took a deep breath, and decided to count down, thinking his friend would need the push. “On one, two, three!” They both surged forward, hands parting as they raced along the road.

The wheezing breath turned into a gurgled snarl, a sound that would have made Taehyung pee himself if he hadn’t been focusing so much on running, on going so fast he could out-run even the adults, even when his side started to burn.

A sound came to him as they ran, like one of the adults was dragging something heavy along the streets, and then the heavy, sickening sound of a body falling dead-weight came, the snarl increasing in pitch, it sounding so disgustingly wet that Taehyung imagined the thing drooling at the thought of getting its hands on them. He didn’t know if it was running, as the steps sounded somewhere faster than a walk, but not quite a run

He looked over at Jungkook and nearly tripped in the process, stomach churning with guilt at the expression of utter terror on the boy’s features. Taehyung had never been in a situation like this before, and his fear was turning his insides into pure liquid. For Jungkook, it had to be so much worse; a resurgence when he had been promised safety.

When they would make it back safe, if Jungkook would ever want to see him again, he would never take him out of the town again. Curiosity wasn’t worth this.

Taehyung didn’t chance looking back, but as time ticked by, they both started to slow, unused to running so hard in the hot day. Even as the sun began to set, the world was still bright, and both were drenched in sweat. He could cry; in his mind, it almost seemed like they would never get back to town, that they were doomed to run from that thing forever.

Then, in the blink of an eye, with Taehyung focused on moving and looking for their town, Jungkook didn’t lift his foot high enough, and he tripped over something.

The boy cried out, and the hard sound of skin scraping against pavement registered to Taehyung, the elder of the two spinning around and seeing the zombie for the first time.

It was closer than he had thought; it surged toward Jungkook triumphantly, Taehyung freezing for a moment at the maggot-choked flesh of its eyes, his mind unable to see anything else.

But at Jungkook’s scream, he snapped back into his body and drew his knife, surging forward to swipe at the zombie, knocking its head to the side with the force of his blow.

“Jungkook get up!” He screamed at his friend, stabbing at the thing’s chest, unable to reach its head with it recoiled. Instead, he tore its clothes and whimpered when it revealed more eviscerated flesh.

Thankfully, Taehyung nearly in tears, Jungkook finally staggered to his feet and lurched back.

“Taehyung,” he whispered.

“Go! We need to—” A pair of hands caught him, the flesh tearing off its fingers from where it grabbed him so forcefully, drawing him back.

He flailed again, ignoring Jungkook’s screams, trying to shake off the monster and wiggle free from its grip like he used to when he didn’t want his parents to pick him up.

“Run!” Taehyung screamed, knife hand flailing almost uselessly, legs kicking, before a searing, disgusting pain shot through him, his right arm suddenly stuck where she had bitten him.

“No,” Jungkook sobbed, but he turned tail like Taehyung had said, and ran faster than Taehyung had ever seen him go.

Relief welled up in his chest after a moment, though the emotion felt so out of place as Taehyung struggled to free himself harder than ever.

He couldn’t die, he wouldn’t die.

Taehyung felt the flesh in his arm tear as the zombie bit, chewing hungrily, and he nearly blacked out from the pain, though he got extremely lucky. When it had lifted him to take the bite, it had his full weight in his arms, so when he kicked the inside of the creature’s elbow the wrong way, its arm snapped and he went tumbling to the ground.

It snarled, wondering where his meal went, and Taehyung swallowed back his intense need to vomit, forcing himself to his feet.

He took that back; one peek at the bloody bite mark in his arm made him want to vomit even more and then faint, though nothing compared to the dead way the zombie’s arm flapped at the elbow, like it couldn’t feel pain.

It lurched forward, and Taehyung noticed that its right foot hung at an awkward angle, dragging against the road. That was likely the only reason it hadn’t run him and Jungkook down. The realization stung, but it didn’t slow him as he turned tail and started to run back toward town, the adrenaline pushing him, though he could feel his arm throbbing, fear curling at the edges of his mind.

“Whatever you do, you don’t want to be bitten,” his dad had said to him.

Anguish rushed over him and he nearly stopped, though the zombie was still close behind him. He didn’t want to die; he was too young to die—

“Taehyung!” Voices in the distance screamed.

His attention drifted up, amazed, and he once again nearly stopped, as he had forgotten why he was running, for some reason.

Taehyung forced himself on, knowing it was important, and the little figures became normal sized, a woman with long, dark hair surging past him with something in her hand.

A sick, wet sound filled the air, like someone had just broken a particularly thick egg shell, and then the angry wheezing went silent, something collapsing behind him.

But he kept running, until the next figure grabbed him, his father’s face barely registering, before the words “jesus, he’s been bit” got to him next.

From that moment out, everything was a blur; he saw snatches of things happening, like when his father lifted him into his arms and the sky moved at an impossibly fast pace above him, like the curtain of his mom’s hair as she cried over top of his chest, like the weird smell that came when he could no longer move his arms.

Then the words: “Bite this, honey” and something was shoved between his teeth.

Before he could decide whether to obey or not, something blindingly painful touched his injured arm and he shrieked like an animal, not knowing where those sounds were coming from in him, but needing the pain to stop, stop, stop stop.

It went on for an eternity, Taehyung fading in and out of consciousness, until he finally awoke, the pain burning with just enough agony that he could stay awake.

The first thing he noticed was that everything was dark, and he was laying on his kitchen table, for some reason.

Even stranger, arguably, he could hear Jungkook’s dad:

“—lucidity is important. It means the virus hasn’t taken hold. Of course, that was such an old one to begin with that a normal infection might set in. In which case, his fever won’t tell us anything.”

He blinked, staring up at the ceiling, wondering what that could mean—why a man who hated him so much was in his house—when someone in the doorway let out a little sob.

“Jaehyuk, he’s awake!” His mom cried, rushing over to him. “Baby, baby, can you hear me?”

Taehyung turned his head to look at her. “Yeah mom, I can hear you.” His voice croaked, throat aching horribly, and he winced.

“Shh, don’t try to talk.” Guilt flashed over her face. “You screamed so much, it’s ripped your esophagus up a bit.” She held up a cup of water. “Can you drink?”

Wondering what an ‘esophagus’ was, Taehyung went to sit up, and when she held the cup to his lips, he gulped the water down so enthusiastically that he forgot to breathe. His stomach boiled a bit in resentment, but it stayed down, and he inhaled shakily, grateful for the water.

“Why am I on the table?” Taehyung craned his neck to look around, and caught sight of the back of Jungkook’s father’s head in the main room.

“Do you remember what happened? When you went out with Jungkook?”

Freezing, afraid for all the trouble he was definitely going to get in now that they knew, he squeaked out, “Is that why his dad is here?”

She looked down at him sadly. “He’s here because he’s a doctor, Tae.”

“A doctor?” Taehyung scooted along the table, but when he tensed his right arm to move it, he gasped in sharp relief, his other arm shooting over to cradle the injured one. “What?”

He looked down at his arm, taking in the darkness of the bandage that was wrapped around it, and it came back to him; the zombie, the running, the bite.

“Am I gonna become a zombie?” His voice cracked, attention going back to his mother. She couldn’t lie to him; he would never forgive her.

“You shouldn’t,” her voice was calm. “Zombie bites don’t kill you if you can remove the infection fast enough.”

The memory of intense pain, like he was being burned alive flickered back to him, and he nearly threw up the water he had just drank.

“So…I got bit, and you cut out the infection?” Taehyung looked up at her hopefully, hating how he could feel himself trembling.

“Yes, dear.” She smiled down at him shakily, Taehyung noticing her eyes were puffy and red. “Mr. Jeon says that if you’re lucid after the removal of the infected flesh, that it didn’t have enough time to make you sick. You’re going to be alight.”

Once more, he wondered what ‘lucid’ meant, but he couldn’t care; everything would be alright.

“And Jungkook’s alright?”

Her smile turned warmer; less worried, more proud. “He is.”

Suddenly, she enfolded him into a tight hug, minding his injured arm. “I’m so proud of you. I’m so glad you’re alright.”

Embarrassed, and more than a little guilty for making his mom worry like that, he replied, “Of course, mom. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen.”

“But you would leave town with a 3-year-old for back up,” her voice turned wry, and he stiffened. “Don’t think I forgot about that, Kim Taehyung. You should know better than that. You handled a bad situation as well as you could, but that doesn’t change the fact that you shouldn’t even have been in that situation to begin with.”

Her eyes held his. “I want you to understand, Tae. What if something had happened to Jungkook? Or both of you, and you were stuck out there? That stuff isn’t a game; if you both had gotten bitten, you would both be dead or dying. And when you disobey our rules like that, you’re risking your life unnecessarily.”

He bowed his head, properly shamed. If anything had happened to Jungkook, he would have never forgiven himself. And the fact that he made his mom cry over something so needless had him feeling more than ashamed of himself.

“I’m sorry, mom,” he whispered, unable to look at her.

Her hands moved to cradle his face, to make him look at her, and she spoke authoritatively, though her tone stayed soft, “Don’t ever do it again, alright?”

He nodded, letting her pull him into another hug.

--

Thankfully his father had about the same reaction as her, though his voice raised more in anger, demanding to know why Taehyung thought he could do something so stupid.

Of course, when the boy explained that he didn’t think there could be anything dangerous, as he had never even seen a “wild” zombie before, the dad just exhaled.

“I hope this proves to be a good lesson for you then, son.” He sighed, but also hugged the other tightly.

Jungkook’s father left after an arbitrary check over, the man telling him in as few words as possible that Jungkook was uninjured and at home.

“Can I see him?” He had begged, as the man measured his heartbeat.

He had to count for a minute, so Taehyung waited patiently, but after that, the man only told his parents, “Call me if anything changes. As of now, he’s normal for the trauma he’s experienced.”

“Wait, can I see Jungkook?” His voice pitched up, but the man ignored him, nodding to his parents, before going to leave.

Taehyung turned to look at his parents, voice small, “Why do they hate me?”

His father sighed and then walked over to rest a comforting hand on his shoulder. “They’ll come around. They’re just frightened.”

“They hate me twice as much, now.”

Neither of his parents replied—instead, his mother reminded him that he needed to rest and recover.

He followed her upstairs, the pain in his arm making it hard to hold onto his anger. When she left, all he could feel was the empty ache from having part of his arm cut off, and the emotional ache of knowing his best friend’s parents hated him.

--

The nights that followed were choked with nightmares. His barren room protected him in wakefulness, as zombies couldn’t pretend to hide behind furniture that wasn’t there, but they could dig their stinking hands into him in the vulnerable zone of sleep despite his physical safety.

The remembered smell choked him in his sleep, and his fear chased him no matter how thoroughly he buried himself under his covers—aware now that blankets wouldn’t fool a zombie, couldn’t stop a zombie.

He clung to his parents in the waking hours, and they let him, as he couldn’t do chores with his bad arm, but he hated feeling so helpless. More than not being able to help out, his fear kept him from testing his boundaries, kept him from going to see his best friend even through his sick worry that followed him during the day.

And fear haunted him at night; when he had to go anywhere by himself, he would feel hungry eyes on him. It only grew worse as the rain poured in, the luxury of sitting in the warm sun no longer possible. Worse, the rains darkened the daylight world and kept him inside, driving him through horrible fits of boredom. After a week, his boredom topped his fear, but when he would see or do anything interesting, his first reaction would be to tell Jungkook. Then the wind would go out of his sails as he remembered that he hadn’t seen the boy since he had been bitten.

It had to be the loneliest week Taehyung had ever felt, even with his parents. He spent his time drawing in the dirt and fighting not to test his weak arm, knowing it hadn’t healed and that he couldn’t risk ripping his stitches. Couldn’t risk the infection.

Where he could at least play or race when the rains stilled, he lacked his favorite companion, and had no desire to seek out the older boys. They taunted him for getting caught, for leaving town and having to be retrieved like infants. If he had full use of his arm, he would have thrown stones at them. Jungkook and he both would have. He had never imagined that he could miss a person so much.

Taehyung had loved the monsoon rains the prior year, for their warmth and the mud puddles they created, and he had been so excited to share them with Jungkook for the first time—but even if Jungkook came to see him, he couldn’t get his stitches wet.

Worse, the constant noise made him shake as he thought about how the zombies would likely grow restless, and how the village wouldn’t be able to hear them coming.

That combination of things lent themselves well to Taehyung staying in bed all day, trying to sleep, planning on doing things when his parents got home—but not before. It wasn’t like he had toys or chores to do, and his room itself was unengaging with its pale, wooden floors, dirty, streaked white walls, and one filthy window in the wall perpendicular to his bed.

Sadness yawned in his chest and he laid down to nap, nearly missing a banging sound from downstairs.

First he froze, trying to figure out if he had imagined the sound, then he listened harder, wondering if he had just heard thunder.

The sound came again, and terror loomed in his chest, until a very familiar call registered to him: “Taehyung! Taehyung, open up!”

He was out of bed before he could finish processing, throwing himself forward, his injured arm pinned to his chest like a baby bird’s broken wing, though his legs pumped like the last time he had run hard—though this time, it was toward something.

Racing down the stairs, he got to the front door and he undid the lock, wrenching it open to reveal Jungkook, wide eyed and there.

“Tae—”

“Jungkook!” He shouted, throwing himself forward, both arms wrapping tightly around the boy’s body.

Taehyung shuddered when that jostled his bad arm, but he couldn’t care beyond letting that arm drop, still clinging to Jungkook with his other arm. “You’re here.”

The boy inhaled shakily. “Yeah…I couldn’t go looking for you. When I tried, I got yelled at. But I snuck out today when mom went to the trench, and dad was out farming.”

Anger at himself for being so cowardly rose in his chest and he drew back, shaking his head at himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that. But I can’t go outside in the rain, so you can come in here.” Hope quivered in his voice. “So we can play? If you’re not mad at me?”

Jungkook hesitated, and Taehyung found himself taking a careful look at his friend; he had a heavy set to his shoulders, and he wasn’t looking at him directly. And he had a bruise on one cheek.

Stepping forward, he touched Jungkook’s chin, asking, “Did you get this when you fell?”

“Ah, yeah,” Jungkook swallowed thickly. “Taehyung—”

“Please don’t tell me that you don’t want to see me again,” he blurted out. “I know I messed up and I’m so, so sorry. You’re my best friend. I don’t know what to do without you.”

Now it was his turn to stagger back, as Jungkook threw his arms around him in a fierce hug.

“You don’t understand!” Jungkook whimpered, burying his face in Taehyung’s shoulder, “I missed you so much, but it was my fault! If I didn’t trip, you wouldn’t have gotten caught and bit…”

Taehyung laughed, “No; it was my fault for dragging you out there.”

“No.” He could hear Jungkook pouting against his shoulder. “I’m the reason you got hurt.”

“Shush.” He squeezed him with his one-armed hold, and they stood there like that, just inside his house, embracing tightly until the loneliness faded completely from Taehyung’s heart, only leaving the faintest reminder of the fear he had experienced. But, with Jungkook there, Jungkook okay, things didn’t look nearly so bleak anymore.